Wharton’s Michael Platt and Elizabeth Johnson discuss how advances in neuroscience can impact business.

Research into the interplay between the discipline of neuroscience — which studies the brain and the nervous system — and marketing could help to explain how people make decisions, how they react to stimuli and what triggers might amplify or diminish the impulses that drive social interactions or even innovation in a business setting. Such research also raises ethical questions on how those insights might be used, and how to prevent them from getting into the wrong hands.

Those are the opportunities and challenges for the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative, which was launched in September 2016, according to Michael Platt, its director. Platt, a neuroscientist, is also a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor with appointments at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, the department of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, and the marketing department at Wharton. Creating the neuroscience initiative “at the intersection of medicine and business … is a provocative idea,” said Platt. But he is convinced that “it sends a clear signal to business schools, universities and people in industry that neuroscience is here, and the future of business is in neuroscience.”

Technological developments in the space also make it an opportune time for such an initiative, according to Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, who is managing director and senior fellow of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative. She pointed to the “huge boom” in wearable neurotech, and the proliferation of devices such as heartbeat monitoring watches, sleep monitoring gadgets and brainwave headbands. “[Students] need to know how to tell hype from what’s practical,” she said. “We need them to be savvy about that.” Platt and Johnson were previously colleagues at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences.

Platt and Johnson discussed the intersection of neuroscience and business on the Marketing Matters show on  Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

How We Tick, Why We Tick

Businesses and marketers need to get up to speed on the use of neuroscience in advertising and marketing, according to Catharine Hays, executive director of the Wharton Future of Advertising program, who co-hosts the Marketing Matters show. “The essence of the initiative is grounded in helping people, understanding how we tick, why we tick, and then using that information to make sure that we tick well,” she said. It helps that Penn has a large neuroscience community, she noted.

Platt expanded on Hays’s comments and said, “Knowing something more about how we tick as individuals and how we tick together sometimes and sometimes we don’t could impact the way we do business and educate the next generation of students….”

According to Platt, the “tremendous strides” in neuroscience over the last couple of decades will help people with brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Those same advances in neuroscience will also help businesses and individuals “reach their maximum potential to create value for society,” he added.

The Wharton Neuroscience Initiative this year started an Introduction to Brain Science for Business course. It essentially uses business as a vehicle to teach students neuroscience, and also a means to convey some of the emerging areas for applications, said Platt. Some of those are in the area of marketing, to test the effectiveness of advertising such as engaging people and predicting sales, he explained. The idea is to broaden the domain of neuroscience beyond attention or decision-making to social neuroscience or studies of creativity, he added.

The brain is trying to figure out ambiguity, and is trying to find solutions for what we see and what we perceive.” –Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson

Takeaways for Businesses

Research being conducted by Platt and Johnson could find numerous applications in the world of business. Johnson’s research includes studies in vision and color vision. For example, she would examine why different people identify the same color differently, such as some seeing blue as black or white as gold. She pointed to applications, for example, in the cosmetics industry. “We spend a lot of time looking at whether or not we can make ourselves more attractive” by adding different colors, she said.

Johnson saw big opportunities for research into those varying perceptions of color. “People had very emotional responses when they realized that what their friends saw was different from what they saw, even though it is same [color],” she said. The neuro-scientific explanation for people seeing colors differently is still being probed, she added.

“Inherently … what you perceive is all in your head, which as neuroscientists we always knew,” Johnson said. “We also know that the brain is trying to figure out ambiguity, and is trying to find solutions for what we see and what we perceive.” She has also begun to research how colors on people’s faces change depending on their emotional state “and the signals that we might be getting but we don’t think about,” such as when people blush.

Hays noted that 80% of the decisions or choices people make are based in their subconscious. “[In] bringing them to the fore and making them explicit, the business applications are mind boggling,” she said.

Platt said his research includes trying to understand at “a very deep level” aspects of interpersonal interactions. That begins with how people perceive each other to “higher-order processes” such as how that might prompt people to be kind or deceptive, he explained.

“We are working out the circuitry [and] trying to understand how we might turn up the volume on some of those signals and turn down the volume on some others,” Platt said. “So, could you do various kinds of nudges to promote more social behavior, to make us more attentive to each other, or [to become] better able to read social cues and be better listeners?”

“Could you do various kinds of nudges to promote more social behavior, to make us more attentive to each other, or [to become] better able to read social cues and be better listeners?” –Michael Platt

A Measured, Cautious Approach

Penn research is focused on using those insights to test new therapies to treat people with disorders, including both medicines and non-invasive brain stimulation, Platt explained. “We need to do research to figure out how to do it right, and how to do it safely.” Some of those therapies are being put into practice at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he added.

Platt’s research extends to studying decision-making and how people weigh trade-offs between continuing to exploit something they know well versus taking risks to explore new ways of doing things. “That is where the spark of innovation comes from,” he added. As that research advances, it will also try to uncover the mechanisms of that process, measure it on individuals unobtrusively through a wearable device or “stimulate that circuitry on people whose job it is to be innovative.” The research work will also extend to innovating on devices at an ideas lab to improve quality and make them cheaper so they can be used more in everyday lives.

Platt acknowledged that such research raises “important ethical questions,” but clarified that they are not specific to neuroscience in a business context. He said that among other resources to grapple with those issues, he wants to tap into the deep expertise in bioethics at Penn. Johnson called for continuing debate on these issues to come up with the right applications.